Catskill Art Space Opens With James Turrell and a Lofty Vision

By Laura van Straaten

New York Times, Published Oct. 19, 2022

LIVINGSTON MANOR, N.Y. — On Oct. 22, a stretch of Main Street in this hamlet in New York’s Sullivan County will join the list of often unexpected and rural places to see art installations by James Turrell.

The Catskill Art Space, a local arts nonprofit that is celebrating its half-centennial with a rebranding as a new art destination, will include not just a Turrell work, “Avaar,” but also two Sol LeWitt wall drawings. The three artworks are semi-permanent loans that will be on long-term view alongside rotating shows of works by artists with connections to the region.

“Work by artists of this caliber is certainly a stretch for an organization of our size,” said Sally Wright, the executive director of the organization, which was known for 50 years, until last month, as the Catskill Art Society. It’s also a stretch for a town with a full-time population of under 1,000. Wright, 35, has headed the nonprofit since 2017.

“Avaar,” a loan from the Seattle Art Museum, is among the pieces Turrell has called his “Space Division” or “Aperture” works. (There is some debate as to when Turrell conceived “Avaar,” but the Whitney Museum of American Art included it in his solo show that opened in 1980.) The colossal space is separated into a zone where visitors position themselves and look toward a second zone from which the light emits. Unlike some of the artist’s best-known works, which wow with saturations and transformations of color, “Avaar” is achromatic — using only white light.

As visitors enter a seemingly pitch-black space, the eyes need several minutes to adjust before the aperture becomes apparent, looming first like a flat field, then seeming to open into a never-ending abyss of pure light. The artist has compared such works to how, shortly after you turn off a porch light, your vision can penetrate the night — an experience Wright quickly points out is common in the countryside. She said those who have seen the work find it “meditative and also really reflective of the Catskills environment,” adding that Turrell has often cited the Hudson River School painters as an influence.

The two LeWitt works, “Wall Drawing #991” and “Wall Drawing #992,” from 2001 and first presented at Artspace in New Haven, Conn., were created at Catskill Art Space following guidelines from the artist, who died in 2007. Five local artists using specific pencils and pens have carried out LeWitt’s instructions. (“We had to start buying the markers from eBay,’’ she said, to assure the nibs would be properly sharp.) Two draftspeople were on hand to oversee the process from LeWitt’s estate, which lent the works.

Wright found inspiration in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Mass., and in the Dia Art Foundation, where she previously worked in development, with its museum space in Beacon, N.Y. She has lofty goals for her far smaller institution: world-class art and programming “specific to the community in which we’re serving,” she said.

She aims to make hay of these loans that might merely have been also-rans at richer, bigger institutions in big cities. She plans to use these “critical conceptual works” to draw art lovers but also “our children that are coming to our programs and first learning about art making and art history, as well as our hobbyist artists,” she said, who are deepening their practices with ceramics or watercolor. “Different things will resonate with different populations.”

For example, Wright has invited science lecturers from the local community college, State University of New York, Sullivan, to use the Turrell to teach about light and give public talks on photons and electromagnetic waves. And, inspired by the contemplative quality of Turrell, her team has invited monks from a nearby Zen Buddhist monastery to host their weekly meditations for the community on site. She plans to employ LeWitt’s artworks to teach “not just color theory but also conceptual ideas around originality and ownership.”

Built as a cinema in 1929, the nonprofit’s home has also been a general store and auction house over its long life. The institution moved to the lower floor in 2007 but Wright waited to receive enough support from donors and a vital New York State Economic Development grant before renovating and expanding on an upper floor.

The redesign is the work of the husband-and-wife design duo Jane Stageberg and Tim Bade of Brooklyn-based Bade Stageberg Cox Architecture, who have a home in the area.

They created 9,500 square feet of exhibition and performance space (the Turrell and the LeWitts will live on the redesigned top floor) and added vitrines that function as a street gallery for passers-by, including families from the local public elementary school and patrons of the small local stores along the town’s main artery.

The building now boasts expanded art studios for classes in ceramics and mixed media and a new multipurpose performance space, used this week for a pre-opening residency for emerging choreographic and dance talent as part of the Dance Gallery Festival (the inaugural festivities are free and open to the public).

Wright said that due to a scarcity of performing spaces in the region, during the five years her organization has hosted the festival, previous programs were held on a nearby basketball court.

Improvisations like that are common for small arts organizations; during the renovation, the nonprofit operated out of a former laundromat across the street.

But that is changing as the sprawling Hudson Valley art scene evolves. Foreland, an 85,000 square foot arts complex, opened this year in Catskill, N.Y. And last May saw the debut of the artist Bosco Sodi’s new museum, Assembly, in nearby Monticello, with an exhibition of artists from Japan and those who share Mr. Sodi’s Mexican heritage. (While Foreland closes next month, both Catskill Art Space and Assembly are open year-round.)

The inaugural exhibitions include two artists with deep connections in the region. Francis Cape, of nearby Narrowsburg, N.Y., is showing work through 2027 from his “Utopian Benches” series, for which he carefully reproduced seating from religious communities of North America dating back to the 1700s. “The work is about communal exchange and also breaking down societal hierarchies, which permeate our world and also permeate the art world,” Wright said. In a show on view through Dec. 23, Ellen Brooks, who splits her time between Livingston Manor and Brooklyn, creates the appearance of decay on found digital images of trees and leaves, evoking “the disintegration and degrees of loss, which we’ve experienced as a community the past few years,” Wright added.

Wright said she hopes the new Catskill Art Space will prove “transformative” to Livingston Manor. “Arts are a tremendous means for economic stimulus,” she said.

TREES (1987/2022)  LEAVES (2022)

The inception for the work Trees (1987/2022) began after having a conversation with a collector who had purchased a Sunset Tree in 2019, this piece was from a series produced in 1987.  In 2020 she called and told me that she was having issues with the piece. She is from the West Coast and could only see the tree as a tree on fire, not as a tree with a backdrop of a sunset. For me this was a stunning realization about context and time. 

The work, which had been shown in February, 1989 at Annina Nosei Gallery in New York, depicted over-cultivated, groomed, and manicured landscapes derived from media images that leaves one nostalgic for the natural world. Although the landscapes are designed to replicate the pastoral, they are contrived, fake ideas of the pastoral that morph nature into yet another product. 

The new work,Trees and Leaves (2022) are about a major/gross disturbance in nature. Diseased states and interruptions of growth. The wearing away of nature and its resource.    - 2022

SCREENS 1 1986-1993

These photographs are addressing issues of cultural longing, the images having their origins in the natural world but are removed from nature, firstly through the artifice of over-cultivation and grooming inherent in the imagery- golf courses, night-lit landscapes, gardens, artificial waterfalls, bonsai trees-and further through the media packaging of beauty as presented in magazines and theme calendars. By re-photographing these subjects from the glut of existing images in our culture, the photographs become reflective of that culture, simultaneously fulfilling a contrived yearning for beauty while denying the direct experience of it. The issue of adapting imagery from pre-existing sources is not one of appropriation of authorship, but of utilizing popular imagery as metaphor for a condition of cultural desire. The images from a sushi calendar become icons for the popularization of the exotic. The source images are painted over to enhance and exaggerate or repress areas, and then re-photographed through a dense screen, transforming the imagery into a "crystalline composite of color". The familiar becomes elusive in the struggle to regain a recollected orientation to what is now generalized in a molecular surface, the screen acting as a "leveler of language".     - 1987

SCREENS II 2008-2014

The screen is an apparatus that one both sees and sees through. In Screens 2008-2014, photographs are shot through screens imprinted with images of nature taken from hunting paraphernalia, which partially reveal wall pieces made from reconstructed photo-based fabrics. Competing layers of imagery complicate the legibility of the photograph. These digitally-generated materials are photographed in the studio with conventional studio techniques, then further altered in post-production to create each conflated fictive scape. The resulting large-format image immerses the viewer in an ambiguous, flattened space, the screen generalizes and obscures while providing an index of its own depth within the field of the photograph.     - 2012

Tema Celeste International Art Review N. 19, January - March 1989

"Beyond Nature. Ellen Brooks" by Ellen Haus pp. 46-48

Journal of Contemporary Art: Interviews & Projects, Vol. 4 No. 2, Fall/Winter 1991 

An interview with Leslie Tonkonow pp. 9-21